5 Ways to Prepare Your Child's Heart For College

September marks the beginning of a new school year and for many students and parents, the start of their college journey.  You’re preparing your child for college by buying them new polka dotted sheets for that extra long dorm bed and textbooks, which you pray they’ll open, but are you preparing your child to take care of their hearts in college?

Here are some tips to keep your child heart healthy in college and beyond...

  1. Get Medical Records in Order — Teach your student to manage their own overall health.

    For many new college students, this will be their first time that they will be responsible for handling their own health care. Turning 18 makes access to medical records more restricted for parents.  Make sure your child knows where the campus or local clinic is located (Columbia University’s undergraduate health clinic is located on the third and fourth floors of John Jay Hall on the main campus). Help them transfer their records and inform them about how their health insurance works (or work with them in getting student health insurance).

    Dr. Steven Stylianos, Surgeon-in-Chief of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian recommends that: “one of the simplest yet effective ways to enhance communication about a college student’s medical history is to create a written or electronic summary of the student’s medications, allergies and key medical events/procedures with dates, provider names and contact info. This type of documentation will truly help the student and health care providers during an unplanned medical encounter, especially during “off hours” when communication is a challenge.

    For more information and resources for this transition, check out GotTransition.org.

  2. Avoid excessive drinking — Educate your student about the effect of alcohol consumption on their heart.

    We all know that alcohol can be a big temptation for many college students.  Alcohol has been associated with a lot of negative health effects beyond the heart (see our previous posting on “Alcohol Abuse and Acute Pancreatitis”), but cardiovascular health is definitely adversely affected by irresponsible drinking in particular.  Drinking too much alcohol raises the level of fats (triglycerides) in the blood and can lead to high blood pressure and/or heart failure.  Binge drinkers are at a high risk for stroke.  Don’t be deceived either; new studies show that the positive effect of Resveratrol in red wine (and dark chocolate) on your heart isn’t actually well connected as once thought (sorry, folks).

  3. Sleep is important – Remind your student to get their rest.

    Late night studying, partying, or job obligations make college students some of the most sleep-deprived people in our communities.  One study showed that up to 7 in 10 college students don’t get the recommended 8 hours of sleep.  Remind your child that sleep is essential for restoring your body’s functions.  Though the exact connection between lack of sleep and heart disease is still being explored, sleep has been shown to be highly beneficial to your heart.  Your heart rate and pressure lower while you sleep, which relieves the workload on the heart that pumps as much as 100,000 times a day.  Lack of sleep has also been linked in increased diabetes and stress hormones.

  4. Avoid the “Freshman 15” — Encourage your student to exercise.

    Exercise is of course the third pillar of health.  The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five days a week.  Buy your student a bike or good pair of running shoes to get to class or encourage them to use the campus gym.  Oftentimes, “activity fees” are part of tuition payments, which give access to the campus athletic facilities, and many private gyms offer student discounts.  Intramural and club sports along with dance classes and other fun activities may be other ways to stay physically active as a college student. Studies have also shown that regular exercise helps improve brain function, so grab the books and hit the gym. 

  5. Get screened for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — Make sure student-athletes know the symptoms of HCM

    On the note of exercise, the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young people is known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, or HCM, which is particularly prevalent in student-athletes—accounting for nearly a third of cardiac deaths in young athletes.  HCM is the thickening of heart muscle, which usually has a hereditary cause. The screening, a simple EKG, is straightforward and affordable, but many routine medical checkups of student-athletes still do not screen for this.  Check with your student’s athletic program to make sure that they do.  If they do not and your family has a history of heart conditions, it may be advisable to have your student screened before participating in competitive sports.  Should your child experience shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, fainting or dizziness (especially upon exertion), and palpitations (a rapid or irregular heartbeat), it’s advisable to have them checked out.  You can read more about HCM here.

Heart health is sometimes thought as something that only the elderly need to care about, but if you’re conscientious at a young age and develop healthy habits early, you can help stem the tide of heart disease. Good luck to all you parents and your new college students in the next chapter of your lives!